Housing Complex

901 Monroe Street Project Squeaks By ANC

A bunch of mixed-use development projects around the city have divided communities, forcing arguments about who has what rights and how the neighborhood should grow (or not). The Hine School project on Capitol Hill is one, Cathedral Commons in Tenleytown is another. But perhaps none has been more acrimonious than 901 Monroe Street NE across the street from the Brookland Metro station. At a hotly contested Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association meeting earlier this fall, the group gave its support by a vote of 51-49—after which the development partners were accused of padding the membership with their own employees.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5A finally weighed in last night, with dozens of constituents packed into a small meeting room on Irving Street. Many of the so-called "200-footers"—those living in close proximity to the project—spoke out passionately against it, most with the simple objection that it was too big for the site, and would set a precedent for further development down the road.

"A 90-foot building ten feet from my house? It's going to change all of our lives," said one 10th Street resident (the project is actually only 61 feet at its highest point). "And I hope you can understand that this is just the beginning, believe me. This will be coming into your neighborhood too." Ward 5 Business Association president Eddie Johnson portended a slippery slope, claiming that projects proposed for the ward would cover all the existing green space and bring 25,000 new cars, leading to a dangerous deterioration in air quality. "People are going to die," he finished.

The affected single member district is represented by one Carolyn Steptoe, who has not only scrawled her opposition on her own house, but also unashamedly admitted having used ANC funds to post signs urging residents to oppose the project. She stood the whole time, brandishing a tape recorder over her head, glaring over her glasses, and occasionally squabbling with other commissioners.

But in an impressive show of YIMBYism, people in favor of the project turned out as well, making points about the jobs the project would generate, the logic of placing density near a Metro station, the additional safety created by six new ground floor businesses. Aside from the benefits, some Brooklanders took issue with the sovereign right of the 200-footers to decide what happens in their backyard—especially if what they want is to prevent other people from enjoying the benefit of living near transit (for which renters will pay an additional 28 percent). "You live a block from a Metro stop, near a public asset, and you have to expect some change," said one particularly logical fellow.

After the public comments, the ever-affable developer Bo Menkiti made his final pitch: A community benefits package worth $385,000, wider sidewalks, buried power lines, neighborhood-serving retail, and a willingness to incorporate feedback that had already resulted in the project shrinking down 11 percent. But he couldn't make it work at the lower zoning category some commissioners wanted, while retaining the high-quality architecture and amenities they also wanted. "It's possible to build a building at C2A," Menkiti said. "But this building? It's not possible."

In the end, the commission voted six to five, with one abstention, to support the project as presented. A few commissioners were clearly swayed by the number of people who'd turned out to speak for the project—Fort Lincoln's Bob King, the city's longest sitting commissioner, said he'd expected opposition to be overwhelming, and found otherwise. Steptoe and others will probably still show up at the Zoning Commission hearing on Jan. 19 to slam the project. But the Zoning Commission listens to ANCs on projects like this, and this one was a victory for residents showing up to advocate for something, not just oppose it.

Below, Steptoe in action—not her greatest hits, but at least a flavor.

  • Og

    Once the PUD is approved by Zoning (which seems certain), how long after that will Menkiti start demolition/construction? I've heard the project will take 18 month to complete.

  • Mark

    You forgot to include the Tenleytown Safeway as one of the "mixed-use development projects around the city have divided communities".


    I think they've been through three re-designs already. Frustrating especially considering the A.U. Park Superfresh closed.

  • Brooklandite

    They said at the meeting last night that it will take 18 months to complete once Menkiti gets the permits. I'm not sure how long it takes to get the permits once the zoning issues are resolved.

  • Og

    Can anyone explain what Zoning issues need to be resolved? I've heard Menkiti doesn't really need to get C2B Zoning (since they have matter of right), but it would be nice to set a precedence.

  • Brooklander

    @ Og: There are two issues to be resolved. First, the project would upzone several lots from residential to commercial as part of the overall PUD. That needs to be formally approved although I think it is all but assured. The big issue is whether Menkiti will be allowed to upzone to C2B, which allows much more density, or whether the Zoning Board will only allow C2A.

  • Tom

    Does anyone know what members voted for and who voted against?

  • Silver Springer

    About time that neighborhood gets redeveloped. Might bring about the changes that are needed and even start having a better influence on Rhode Island.

  • Og

    @Brooklander: If Menkiti can make the case that it's only about 10 feet difference between C2A and C2B, I think they've made their case. I do wonder if amenities could have been lower. I think it's excessive for any developer to spend $385k in amenities.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    $385K in "amenities" isn't outlandish depending on what the amenities are and the additional amount of revenue that will be generated by the upzoning. Monetizing in part this value in return to "the community" is the whole point of the process. The issue is how the process works, who has access to it, and what is funded.

    e.g., http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2008/02/community-benefits-agreements-revised.html

    Note that the first sentence in your post is particularly apt/excellent and gets to the fundamental point of addressing issues of how can the city grow, how to integrate growth opportunities within communities, and how to do it in a way where change can be accommodated while still being somewhat contained, in ways that strengthen rather than harm neighborhoods.

    The 3 examples you give are all instances of intensified development within commercial areas of neighborhoods, mostly not impacting the "neighborhood" at all, with the exception of a little bit of collateral damage in Brookland because of the way that the commercial zoning immediately abuts residential zoning within certain blocks, that allow for increased development in ways that mostly strengthen the city and the neighborhood, without really impinging negatively on the neighborhood.

    But if you are conditioned to see any change, any intensification as anathema, you can't be satisfied with the process.

    The thing that I find "interesting" about Brookland is that for the most part, the only real opportunities (other than a couple of other locations on 12th Street south of Monroe) for intensification are around the subway station/west of 12th St., and that for the most part the intensification can be absorbed without negatively impacting the residential areas of community, and that 12th Street becomes a kind of Maginot line preventing further intensification west of 12th Street--protecting most of the community from change except for about 10 blocks around the Metro Station.

    A key problem with the "Small Area Plan" process is that they aren't neighborhood plans as much as they are development opportunity management plans, so some of these broader issues were not discussed and addressed in the Brookland Small Area Plan, and other neighborhood needs weren't really addressed in the plan. (DC doesn't do neighborhood plans.)

    Plans are impossible endeavors anyway because the city officials have two different sets of goals to work on: citywide goals and neighborhood goals; while the neighborhood typically only focuses on neighborhood goals. Often consensus is impossible, even if the goal sets can be made more congruent.

    But without defining each set of goals from the outset, a contentious process becomes even more contentious, because people don't understand how the differences are produced by and inherent within the process.

    Each of the examples you list is an illustration of this point.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Another point about "contained change." For the most part, intensification in DC comes with little negative neighborhood impact, at least these days. The loss of some dwellings or commercial properties for more intense development. But for the most part, neighborhoods aren't changed over and eradicated in a kind of modern urban renewal.

    OTOH, uncontained change or radical redevelopment is what has happened in parts of Arlington County along the Wilson Blvd. corridor, where neighborhoods such as around Virginia Square were eliminated for more intense development.

    I think doing that kind of change is almost impossible in DC. Although if you want subway expansion-extension, some change like that along new subway corridors is likely necessary.

  • Brooklander

    @ Og: The height difference isn't the real issue...as you correctly note, Menkiti is proposing basically the same height as allowed by C2A. No, the real issue is allowable density, or Floor Area Ratio. C2B allows for greatly increased density...the FAR is 60% greater than C2A for residential uses by my calculation. So the C2B building can be much more massive than a C2A building of the same height.

  • Brooklander

    We all know that change must happen but the way the Menkiti group went about it was all wrong. The way of life will change for those who have lived in their homes for wll over 25 years is unfair.
    The city and the Menkiti group needs to find a better way fo doing business in the future.
    But, on the other hand who said life is fair to the older members of the Brookland area? For it isn't at all.

  • Anonymous

    By requesting C-2-B, rather than C-2-A, for a project that is very close to the C-2-A limits, the developer has a dramatic reduction in the affordable housing requirements.

    There is a 20% reduction in the amount of affordable housing that must be provided, from 10% of the gross floor area devoted to residential uses to 8% of the gross floor area devoted to residential uses.

    And with C-2-A zoning, half the affordable units are set aside for low-income households (income less than 50% of MSA median income), with half the affordable units set aside for moderate-income households (income less than 80% of MSA median income).

    For C-2-B zoning, there is no requirement to set aside units for low-income households, so all of the units will be sold or rented for the significantly higher rates associated with 80% of MSA median income.

    For example, according to the schedule published December 31, 2010, an inclusionary one-bedroom apartment for a low-income household would have a maximum allowable rent of $1,035 or a maximum purchase price of $122,300, while an inclusionary one-bedroom apartment for a moderate-income households would have a maximum allowable rent of $1,656 or a maximum purchase price of $220,900.

    So, by requesting C-2-B rather than C-2-A, the developer is required to set aside only 80% of the affordable housing units that he would otherwise have had to set aside. And, if developed as condominiums, for half of those units, the subsidy to the purchaser is reduced by nearly $100,000 for one-bedroom units (by approximately $110,000 for two-bedroom units and $135,000 for three bedroom units).

    Perhaps that puts the proffer of $385K in amenities into perspective.

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